Four years ago, Ashton Kutcher stood on stage at Lenovo’s Tech World exhibition in San Francisco and unveiled to the world a whole new line of smartphones. The Moto Z. He called them an “actual full-blown game changer.” Why? Because this new line of Motorola phones featured four magnets built into its casing. Sound familiar?
With these magnets, people would be able to snap a whole range of Motorola accessories, called Moto Mods, onto the back of their new Moto Z device. These included a projector-like module that could display a 70-inch picture of your screen onto any surface or wall, a 360-degree camera module, a magnetic 20-hour power bank, a speaker, a magnetic printer, and detachable back covers.
While Motorola’s Moto Mod accessories were genuinely quite cool, the magnetic accessories never really caught on. Shortly before the release of the Moto Z3 in 2018, rumors were already swirling about how Motorola was already scaling back its plans to partner with third-party magnetic Moto Mod manufacturers. The company continued the Moto Z line for three gloriously short years, quietly releasing the apparent final Moto Z4 in 2019. The company never provided any word on a potential Moto Z5, following the Z4’s lackluster release.
So it’s kind of ironic that in 2020, Apple has decided to resurrect its MagSafe moniker and introduce magnets into the iPhone 12 series. But while Motorola failed to turn magnets into a long-lasting smartphone trend, there are a few reasons why Apple’s attempt at magnets will probably work.
Let's start with the magnets themselves. Apple’s implementation of magnets is quite different from Motorola’s use of them. The Moto Z series was specifically designed to be a series of modular phones, and even included 16 pins to connect the modules to the phone’s power source. Those module accessories just so happened to snap onto the phone with magnets in the back panel, rather than through the chin as in the LG G5.
While there are magnets in the iPhone 12, it isn’t actually a modular phone, and that’s a crucial distinction. During the virtual Apple event, Deniz Teoman, vice president of hardware systems engineering at Apple, explained that the company had incorporated magnets into the wound wire coil, which it uses for Qi charging. The magnets inside the phone have been optimized for “alignment and efficiency,” meaning that accessories would snap into the correct position without you having to fiddle around and adjust them. Two new sensors—a single-turn coil NFC and a sensitive magnetometer—were also implemented into the iPhone 12, enabling the phone to sense the strength of the magnetic field.
Avi Greengart, consumer technology analyst at Techsponential says that modular designs appeal to engineers more than the typical consumer. “You start with a base slab and then you can add things to it. But it doesn't match how consumers purchase products,” he explains. “The phone itself needs to be something that they want to buy right now and use by itself.”
The primary use of the magnets in the back of the iPhone 12 is to offer iPhone owners an easier way to charge the device. Accessories are just an additional perk. And even then, Apple is starting out very simple on the accessories front, with just a charger, a wallet, and a magnetic case.
Of course, established Apple accessory/case/strap makers will be ready to jump on the new functionality. Teoman said he can't wait to see “the innovative way” that MagSafe will be used, with the aim being to build “a robust and ever expanding ecosystem.” Belkin has already announced a MagSafe car mount and a MagSafe charger which can charge both your iPhone and Apple Watch, while OtterBox has a MagSafe-compatible iPhone 12 case. Similar Moto modules were much more essential to the use of the Moto Z, but Motorola clearly intended Moto Z users to switch accessories out on a regular basis to increase the functionality of the device. Not so here.
Ramon Llamas, research director for IDC's Devices and Displays team, thinks that this was one of the issues with Motorola’s implementation of magnets—they were unnecessary additions which are already features in many modern smartphones. “Most of their mods were extensions or duplications of what the Moto Z was already capable of doing—think camera, battery pack, or speaker,” he says. “Most smartphones already took high-quality photos, and adding a mod to do DSLR-quality pics would most likely appeal to a select crew.”
Another sticking point was that the Moto Mods were also expensive. A JBL speaker attachment cost $80, the 360-degree camera cost $300, and the Polaroid printer attachment cost $200. The iPhone 12 already has a great camera, it already has a great speaker, and, well, who really needs a $200 printer?
Apple learned some lessons from Motorola by not making MagSafe the unique selling point of the iPhone 12. For anyone watching the keynote, the major focus was 5G, followed by the new design and camera improvements. “Moto hyped up the Mods, as it needed a way to stand out from the Android crowd. That did not help the phones' appeal, as they were frankly underwhelming compared to the hype,” says Daniel Gleeson, mobile industry analyst at Omdia.
Gleeson says that Apple isn’t making the same mistake with MagSafe. If Apple over-emphasized MagSafe, it would mean that the iPhone 12 would be judged by the quality of third-party accessories. “MagSafe will instead just form part of the 'It just works' magic of iPhone,” he says, “where similar capabilities on other brands feel clunky and old-fashioned in comparison.”
Ultimately, the reason why magnets won’t fail Apple is a simple one: Apple is a $2 trillion company that sells millions of iPhones every single year. Compare that to Motorola’s Moto Z, which, according to Omdia data, accounted for just 0.3 percent of the US market in June 2020. The phone didn’t even enter the top 50 handsets in the UK.
So while accessory manufacturers are no doubt scrambling to make MagSafe-compatible accessories, to get a bite of that Apple pie, beyond the partnerships locked in for launch, others clearly weren’t rushing around trying to manufacture Moto Mods. The in-built advantage Apple now commands extends beyond that too. While retailers will be more likely to devote shelf space to MagSafe accessories, they were likely much less willing to give Moto Mods the same courtesy. Still, if the Moto Mods have shown us anything, it’s that if Apple's soft sell takes off, there is plenty of potential for what MagSafe could do.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.